Lesson 12 -- Alien Minds


Members of our species spend a lot of energy on communication, and have been able to create cultures, form lasting relationships, understand people from different continents, and even send men to the moon. However, our communications efforts are not always successful: confusion, misunderstandings, and wars are also a part of our history.


Historically, we have tended to believe that our own kind of intelligence was the real one, even when dealing with members of our own species. Humans have tended to believe that the powerful were more intelligent than the powerless, and that people who looked like us, dressed like us, spoke our languages, or knew our customs, were more intelligent than people who were different from us in these ways. Why? We will get into this when we discuss cultural cohesion. For now, let us note that this is interesting, but not very helpful when we try to think about what intelligence is.

     Our experiences with animals also illustrate our difficulties in evaluating intelligence. We have tended to see animals as objects, things to be eaten, used for amusement or financial gain, ignored, or exterminated. What is happening in their brains? Are they capable of some kinds of thought? Are they just meat machines?

Observations of animals yield interesting results. Elephants recognize the bones of dead companions. Chimpanzees can learn American Sign Language. We wonder what goes on in the brains of dolphins and whales, and if their songs have meaning. We watch our pets and notice that they sometimes do clever things. Intelligence is a challenging concept that seems to need some work.

We would assume that aliens that landed on earth in space ships were intelligent (if they had built the space ships.) Could we tell if they were some sort of organic robots (cyborgs?). Maybe not. If we landed an earth ship on a life-bearing planet, could we tell if the inhabitants were intelligent? We would look for evidence of tool use, artifacts, culture, and language. Would we judge them to be intelligent if they had none of these things? Does that depend on our definition of intelligence?

People sometimes ask, "Is there intelligent life on earth?" They are only half joking. Our creativity can be helpful or harmful. What would alien peoples think of us?


1999. © Elizabeth Anne Viau. All rights reserved. This material may be used by individuals for instructional purposes but not sold. Please inform the author if you use it at